The Government Accountability Office dinged the FCC in report released today for failing to collect enough information to judge TV station joint-operation deals. The FCC wants to tighten restrictions to keep stations from combining ad sales or newsgathering resources. Critics of the deals say that broadcasters often use them to do an end-run around rules that bar a company from owning multiple stations in a market, thereby weakening competition and narrowing the range of local voices. Station owners counter that deals help by making it possible for financially weak stations to stay in business.
But the FCC has “not collected data or completed a review to understand how broadcaster agreements are being used and the potential impacts with respect to its media ownership rules and the corresponding policy goals of competition, localism, and diversity,” the GAO says.
For example, Congress’s investigative arm says that “FCC officials and industry representatives were unable to identify a central data source that tracks all broadcaster agreements.” That means regulators don’t know “the number of agreements, the stations involved, or services provided through the agreements.” Do the so-called sidecar deals affect retransmission consent prices, and contribute to local blackouts on pay TV? Can’t say: The FCC doesn’t know because “retransmission consent fee negotiations are subject to non-disclosure agreements. Moreover, even if the retransmission consent fees were publicly available…it is not always known when stations are involved in a broadcaster agreement.”
The chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, William Lake, told the GAO that regulators have taken “initial steps” to secure the information it needs. It has proposed, as part of its Quadrennial Review of media ownership rules, to require disclosure of station sharing agreements. That would enable the FCC and the public “to better understand the impact of such arrangements on the Commission’s rules and policy goals.” In the meantime, the FCC will “continue to consider broadcaster agreements…in deciding whether approval of particular proposed transactions will serve the public interest.”